What Vince Gray can learn from Obama's 'shellacking'

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, November 6, 2010

When D.C. Mayor-elect Vince Gray joins President Obama for lunch at the White House on Dec. 1, it will be a meeting between two politicians who had sharply divergent election night experiences. Obama, in his own words, took a "shellacking" Tuesday evening as he watched his party lose control of the House of Representatives and barely hold on to the Senate.

Gray, on the other hand, waltzed to victory, along with all of his D.C. Council colleagues who sought reelection.

Yet if Gray isn't careful, he could end up having an Obama experience that should not be repeated, i.e., allowing the giddy atmosphere of victory and inauguration hoopla to overshadow an Election Day reality.

To recall: On that historic day when Barack Obama took the oath of office, Jan. 20, 2009, the cheering crowds drowned out the fact that only a few weeks earlier, on Nov. 4, 2008, nearly 60 million Americans cast their ballots for John McCain.

Those voters didn't go away or lose interest in government once Obama entered the White House.

Gray needs to bear that in mind. He can feel great about having captured nearly 74 percent of the citywide vote for mayor. But it would be a mistake for him to take office in January unmindful of the fact that in wards 1, 2, 3 and 6, which he lost to Mayor Adrian Fenty in September's Democratic primary, at least one-third of the voters chose to write in someone else's name for mayor in Tuesday's general election.

In Ward 3, dubbed "Upper Caucasia" by Washington City Paper, a surprising 43 percent of voters wrote in another person's name for mayor.

Message to Gray: Those 28,000 citywide voters who wrote in another candidate's name aren't going away. And like the 2008 McCain voters, anti-Gray voters aren't going to lose interest in the city's direction.

That lesson appears to have been lost on the Obama administration. Obama's team came to town and immediately got into the weeds of governing, allowing partisan insiders to guide them through the ways of Washington. Obama was warned against that ["A Heretic's Advice to Obama," June 21, 2008]. But "who reads the paper on Saturday?" as one critic demanded to know.

Of course, Obama inherited a colossal mess: a severe recession, a financial system teetering on collapse, a stalled auto industry and millions of Americans unemployed. So the White House went to work on those problems, fashioning solutions from a range of ambitious, generally center-left options. White House officials politely engaged Republicans on Capitol Hill, but their plans satisfied the appetites of mostly Washington Democrats.

They didn't understand the need to bring along the rest of the country. And they utterly failed to recognize that a sizable chunk of the nation, especially among McCain's 60 million supporters, weren't buying what the administration was selling, if it was selling at all, which in retrospect seems doubtful.

As Tuesday's exit polls revealed, many of the independents who voted for Obama in '08 had left his side by 2010, also dissatisfied with his stewardship. He was so entangled in Washington's weeds, however, that he didn't see Tuesday's results coming until it was too late.

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